Charting a New Course
Lee Alexander, '76, a Partner at Hogan & Hartson, remembers peering around the pillars in his fourteenth floor Cathedral of Learning contracts class to look at the professor as he lectured.
Eva Tansky Blum, '73, Senior Vice President and Director of Community Affairs at PNC Bank, remembers walking into her section as a first-year law student and seeing not one other woman. She would come to learn that she was one of only approximately 15 women in a class of 200. Blum also remembers the use of the Socratic teaching method so vividly, “that i can still remember that gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach, worrying if I would be called in in class that day,” says Blum.
A teaching method perhaps not as searing as that used in pop culture's cinematic emblem of the Socratic method — John Houseman’s legendary portrayal of Professor Charles Kingsfield — but a teaching method that was memorable, nonetheless.
Pitt Law alumni all recall an emphasis on core courses and fundamentals, which, as Alexander recalls, “gave us a framework and taught us how to think like lawyers — how to read a case, how to analyze it, and how to research.”
And as for teaching with audio-visual aids? “There was the blackboard,” quips Blum. “The blackboard was the closest we came to multi-media in the classroom.”
Suffice it to say that the Pitt Law experience has markedly changed since those days, nearly forty years ago.
The edifice itself has obvioulsy changed, emerging from “behind the fourteenth floor pillars of the Cathedral of Learning” into its own home on Forbes Avenue. Yet, within that building, there is also a strikingly different student body.
Where women comprise nearly 45 percent and minorities comprise nearly 16 percent of the student population.
Where students who are pursuing LL.M. (Master of Laws for Foreign Law Graduates) and M.S.L. (Master of Studies in Law) degrees alongside J.D. candidates.
Where Pitt Law students can choose from a broader range of practical or specialized learning experiences than ever before — from among six in-house clinics, externships, practicums, and domestic and international moot court competitions.
And where a technologically literate student body enjoys Pitt Law's wireless classrooms. Where blackboards have been replaced by SMART Boards™ and note pads have been replaced by laptops (although laptop use in the classroom continues to be debated at Pitt Law and at law schools nationwide).
“The School of Law has continually evolved, remaining flexible and relevant in order to best equip our students with both the substantive knowledge and the practical skills necessary not only in today’s legal environment, but also for the legal environment of tomorrow,” says Mary Crossley, dean of the School of Law.
Changes in how and what pitt Law students are taught today point to that continual evolution. While the case-dialogue continues to be used—primarily in the first year, the prevalence of the Socratic method has given way to a variety of teaching methods. newer methods look to actively engage all students and encourage them to participate in the learning process.
Contemporary learning theory contends that all learners are different and learn differently. Adult learning theory further suggests that adults learn best by actively doing. Changes in the law school classroom seem to acknowledge those findings. Small groups, peer review, interactive technology and clinical teaching are just some of the ways pitt Law faculty are changing the classroom experience.
On any given day in professor Michael Madison’s intellectual property course, students can be enveloped in a multi-media experience simultaneously surrounded by sights from a YouTube video, sounds from an audio file, and images from a PowerPoint presentation.
“in class we discuss the photographs, paintings, logos, music, film, clips, etc. that have been the subject of cases — particularly copyright and trademark cases. My classes are filled with these examples, using all sorts of technology. They hear the sounds at the heart of a music copyright infringement case. They see the images or the items involved in trademark cases. And suddenly the class comes alive. The students are engaged and their interest level shoots up. And they learn.”
Professor Kevin Ashley, an expert in artificial intelligence and the law, has created, along with three of his colleagues, a novel, interactive, computer-based teaching tool where students learn skills of legal reasoning by diagramming U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments. The students interact with the program by analyzing textual argument transcripts, finding characteristic features in the argumentation, and actually seeing the features’ relationships (through their diagrams) in argument patterns. Based on the students’ diagrams, the program poses questions to the students, offering them feedback and areas for reflection. (for a more detailed discussion of this teaching model created by professor Ashley to improve students’ hypothetical reasoning skills, see “A Window on the Future”).
“This method aims to enhance student learning by actively drawing students into the learning process and giving them instructive feedback along the way,” says Ashley. Other professors such as Pat Chew, Deborah Brake and David Herring incorporate group work in the classroom. in addition to gaining more direct involvement with the material, the students learn collaborative, practical, interpersonal skills such as how to get along with people and how to interact with others to get things done.
And others, like Professors George Taylor and Derrick Bell, introduced participatory learning where students learn by first observing the skills being practiced — through case studies, role playing, debate, etc. — and then use the skills themselves.
One of the most well-known models of participatory learning is the clinic model where students receive practical, hands-on experience. Students develop practical skills, practical judgment and an appreciation for the ethical considerations and rules of professional conduct.
“Today, graduates are expected to hit the ground running, equipped with not only knowledge, but the practical skills necessary on day one,” explains Martha Mannix, Clinical Associate professor of Law who supervises students in the School’s Elder Law Clinic. “The preceptor model is gone, where students, upon graduation, were matched with a practicing attorney for practical skills training.
“in the clinic, students learn key lawyering skills such as document drafting, examination of a witness, fact investigation, interviewing a client, and trial skills in the context of representing actual clients.”
Stella Smetanka, Supervising Attorney of Pitt's Health Law Clinic and Clinical Professor of Law, adds, “The clinics are enriching experiences in which students deal with the dynamics of client relationships. Clinical education is nimble and responsive enough to tailor the classroom work to issues that arise in actual client representation. For example, an extra session on how to negotiate can be arranged if it would benefit students in representing their client”
But the focus on how and what law schools teach has sharpened in recent years as law schools look to restructure their curricula in response to changing societal needs and contemporary learning theory.
“Discussions about the most effective way to teach law students have been going on nationally among law schools for a number of years,” explains Dean Crossley. “But it was the release of several reports, such as the Carnegie Foundation’s critique of legal education in 2007, that made current reform a very public conversation.”
That report, “Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law,” found that while law schools do a stellar job of teaching analytic and reasoning skills — of teaching students how to think like a lawyer, most pointedly in the first year — they do not adequately integrate development of practical training, ethical skills and concern for professional responsibility into the curriculum. The report states that attempts to include training in practical legal skills as well as ethical and social considerations have been done in a piecemeal fashion or “in an additive way.”
Citing a demand for change “from within academic law and without,” the report calls for responsiveness to the “two sides of legal knowledge: formal knowledge and experience of practice.”
Wide-ranging reforms are already in evidence at a number of schools, such as Stanford Law School, which is making a significant investment in the expansion of its clinics with an eventual eye toward mandatory clinics. Vanderbilt University Law School is requiring, among other initiatives, first-year courses that emphasize regulatory, transactional, and international law, and is building second-and third-year tracks in such areas as dispute resolution, public interest law and regulatory law. And Case Western Reserve University is enhancing its third year with a “capstone experience.”
“At Pitt Law,” says Dean Crossley, “we are carefully examining these issues, taking the time to educate our faculty about the critiques, about what our peers are doing to address these issues, and how, given our strengths and our resources, we might address these same issues.”
Designed to generate ideas and inform the discussion, a Pitt Law Ad Hoc Committee on Curriculum has been formed, co-chaired by professors Kevin Ashley and David Herring. It has been analyzing the recent critiques, analyzing curriculum reforms at other law schools, identifying particular areas of need in current legal education, as well as identifying how Pitt Law can differentiate itself from other law schools.
Discussions about teaching methods and presentations from law school deans and faculty who are in the midst of school-wide curriculum reform are part of regularly scheduled faculty workshops.
“We wanted to provide support and incentives to facult as they reexamine teaching methods,” says Lu-In Wang, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law. “The workshops broaden opportunities to talk with each other about improving the law school educational experience.”
When it comes to teaching, University of Pittsburgh law faculty are uniquely poised to contribute to the conversation. Talented scholars, Pitt Law faculty are also equally talented teachers. As educators, they have written more than 20 casebooks or student-oriented treatises, used in law school courses around the country. Pitt Law faculty have won a significantly high proportion of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Awards, the University’s highest award for teaching excellence.
There is no one way, no one method of achieving excellence in teaching. And that is, perhaps, one of the most salient observations of all. There is no one-size-fits-all approach — either in the way students learn or in the way law schools and law faculty teach.
And as Dean Crossley sees it, that is the most exciting aspect for law schools and, ultimately, the most beneficial aspect for students. “it is my hope that this process will lead to a greater diversity among law schools. This is an opportunity to explore how law schools, who traditionally have been fairly homogeneous in approach, can differentiate themselves as to how and what they teach.
“Pitt Law, in addition to its faculty of accomplished scholars and dedicated teachers, has distinguishing assets that differentiate us from among other law schools. We are part of a University that is ranked among the top seven leading public research universities in the United States. We engage in collaborative partnerships with our neighboring university, Carnegie Mellon. We enjoy an exceptionally strong bar locally, many of whom interact with and teach our students. And we have strong regional strengths in the biomedical and health care arenas.
“The conversation is a critical one, as it goes to the heart of what and how we teach in order to most effectively enhance the learning experience and improve learning outcomes. But also central to the conversation is an assessment of the changing needs of professional society, how our particular strengths can address its needs, and what framework is actually viable.
“What might a balanced curriculum look like that integrates both the fundamental, substantive knowledge and the practical, ethical and social considerations endemic to the practice of law in order to best educate and equip our students? What combination of teaching vehicles will best accomplish those goals? These are the questions before us.”
And they are important questions as the Carnegie Foundation report summarized their importance by saying, “The calling of legal educators is a high one — to prepare future professionals with enough understanding, skill and judgment to support the vast and complicated system of the law needed to sustain the United States as a free society worthy of its citizens’ loyalty.”
No matter the decade, no matter the societal trends, the mission of Pitt Law has never changed.
And it remains a very important mission.